Why aren't there more lawyers on boards?

The UK should follow the US's example.

A report studying the rise of so-called "lawyer directors" in the USA Today came to my attention recently. The academic study found that lawyers have become increasingly prevalent on corporate boards; as of 2009, 43 per cent of US companies had lawyer directors on their boards; rising from 24 per cent back in 2000. Indeed the authors of the paper opine that a company with a lawyer on its board has a corporate value typically 9.5 per cent higher than a company without and empirically performs better.

Appointing lawyers onto boards helps to reduce external legal risks whilst also improving internal corporate governance. In the USA there is a dawning realisation that lawyers make valuable board-level directors, as the statistics attest, and a cultural shift is well and truly underway.

In the UK however the boardroom narrative is markedly different. There are only 14 lawyers acting in any capacity on the boards of the FTSE 100 and only 20 qualified lawyers currently on boards of the FTSE 250. Very few general counsels or partners of law firms are making the step up to boardroom level and it begs the question, why this disparity between the US and UK? It is clear that there is a negative mindset amongst CEOs and chairmen of public companies in the UK concerning lawyers serving as executive or non-executive directors on boards. Part of this apprehension stems from the notion that lawyers are skilled craftsmen but not capable of managing businesses nor bringing anything other than endless polemic to boardroom discussions. There also exists a misconception that Limited Liability Partnerships (LLPs) are run as siloed businesses, but in today’s globalised business world large law firms are increasingly run in a form very similar to those of public companies, therefore partners are increasingly required to possess managerial skills to run an LLP successfully. Take my own career as a prime example; as Co-Chief Executive of DLA Piper I have not practiced law for years – my role is strategic and managerial, focussed on the day to day business of developing a global law firm.

The notion that lawyers do not possess the requisite skill set to sit on boards is a patent farce.  I would argue that lawyers have a lot to offer beyond their self-evident legal expertise (whilst not denigrating this offering). Most lawyers generally have the vitally important ability to absorb vast reams of complicated and granular information. Not only does this enable he or she to then précis this information into a clear 'big' picture, it is an essential skill for any board level non-executive (or executive) if he or she is to offer any value-enhancing interpretation of the business.

However at present, deconstructive analysis and corporate governance scrutiny is not always what a UK CEO looks for when considering the makeup of his or her board. Perhaps it is time that public companies started to consider more carefully the benefits of appointing analytical thinkers with a risk-averse and best practice approach to corporate governance. A lot of companies could do with a little more probity of that ilk. Lawyers seeking board level appointments must for their part look to expand their exposure to boards of all kinds, be they businesses, schools, local councils or charities, in order to gain more people management experience and learn to think less like a lawyer and more like a business person. Perhaps then we shall see more lawyers on boards and a cultural shift akin to the US will manifest itself here in the UK.

Photograph: Getty Images

Co-CEO of DLA Piper

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.